Why I'm a Birder

How the Birdchick Got Her Groove

Sharon Stiteler discusses birding in a different time, without binoculars or the Internet.

When I was seven years old I found a Peterson Field Guide to birds at my sister’s house and went nuts. I was transfixed by the picture of the Pileated Woodpecker—it was as big as a crow. I showed it to my mom, telling her it lived in our area and that I’d like to see one.

My mother worked full time—and had eight kids. She knew cardinals, woodpeckers, and hawks, but beyond that she wasn’t really a birder. Still, she did what she could. She bought a feeder to draw birds to our backyard in Indianapolis. When she had some spare vacation time from being a registered nurse, she’d take me to Brown County State Park to find that giant woodpecker. We learned together, though I was more of a gonzo about it.

There was no Internet when I was growing up, so I didn’t know how to connect with other birders. I mostly birded alone, read the many bird books that I was given, and dreamed of what it would be like to see dozens of Bald Eagles in a tree, thousands of Sandhill Cranes in Nebraska, or a Dickcissel singing in the weeds.

I kept my interest in birds a secret. The few times my friends caught me birding, they didn’t get why a Fox Sparrow was more exciting to me than a Song Sparrow—both were just little brown birds. Then one day in college, I was trying to chat up this really cute guy after class. As we walked across the quad, a bird I hadn’t seen for a while flew in front of us. Before I could help myself, I yelped, “Eastern Towhee!”

I tried to hide what I had said, but it was too late; I confessed that I was a birder who had no filter when it came to species IDs. He played it cool, and we ended up dating.

Like most college students, I had very little money and, therefore, no binoculars. But I watched birds in any way I could. I appeased myself by observing a kestrel that hunted starlings outside of my dorm room, and scanning the busy feeders at the local nature center.

After college I moved to Minnesota, purchased binoculars on a credit card, and met other birders online who taught me all they knew about bird identification. I discovered that I didn’t like listing, but that I loved photographing birds and writing about them. Seeing a Great Gray Owl for the first time was as dreamy for me as seeing David Bowie in person. I also learned that when a fellow birder says, “That would be interesting” in response to your rare sighting, it’s code for, “I don’t really believe you.”

For the past 18 years I’ve been on a mission to get paid to bird. Happily enough, I’ve had many opportunities to do just that: working as an interpretive ranger for the National Park Service, giving workshops on digiscoping , conducting avian surveys, advising outfitters on their birdwatching gear, and starting Birdchick. No matter how hectic or frustrating life gets, the very act of fixing my binoculars on a great bird clears my head and relaxes me. I could never give it up. I love birds—it’s just the way I’m wired. 

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